Why is India so incomprehensible?

Half-made festival statues in Assam.

Half-made festival statues in Assam.

Everyone who’s been to India will tell you the country is incomprehensible, that there is no way you can ever possibly begin to understand it.

Before I went I assumed that was because India is unimaginably vast and  diverse: it ranges from desert to jungle, snow-capped mountains to white-sand beaches; its 1.2 billion inhabitants natter away in 22 official languages, plus thousands more ‘mother tongues’; Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Sikhs, animists and many other religions live side by side in varying degrees of harmony.

Why, I wondered, is the idea of this massive variety meant to be so hard to get to grips with? I can cope intellectually with the idea of so many diverse people and landscapes and beliefs co-existing in such a huge area. That’s life, it happens all over the globe. So why is India  meant to be so confuddlingly different?

Now, while I, as predicted, cannot fathom the country itself,  I think I understand why India is so inconceivable. It’s because it is, at times, utterly illogical! How can such a reputedly spiritual and religious place be so corrupt and money-orientated? The most frequently worshipped Hindu deity is Ganesha, popular because this elephant-headed god brings prosperity to the believer. The ancient but unfair caste system is still deeply entrenched in rural areas, but the Indian government recently legalised gay sex between consenting adults. Gentle Ayurvedic principles, practised in India for thousands of years, somehow co-exist in a country where mob beatings and honour killings are regular occurrences. India is home to one of the world’s largest employers, yet the government seems incapable of organising an effective rubbish disposal system. The same people who take a delightfully child-like joy in whooping and whistling as a train goes through a tunnel don’t think twice about tossing plastic water bottles out of that same train’s windows as it passes through pristine, protected rainforest.

These are the kind of contradictions that left me flummoxed. My lasting, rather bi-polar impression of India is of intrigue and frustration. I loved it and I hated it. Corruption and thoughtless littering were my lows; breathtaking scenery and out-of-the-blue friendliness my highs. I couldn’t wait to leave but now I want to go back. Even if I lived there the rest of my life, learnt the language, drank the water and worked for the government, a sweat shop, an NGO, a slum cooperative and a private company, I doubt India would ever make sense to me. And in my world, for reasons right and wrong, this perplexing mystery is what makes India great and draws people back time and time again.


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